Mark Richt called this shot. Speaking in Tampa on the first day of 2012, he said of his Georgia Bulldogs: ““We’re going to be knocking on the door of the greatest success you can have in college football, and if you knock long enough, you’ll eventually break through.”
Some folks tittered, noting that Georgia had just lost the SEC championship game by 32 points. A day later, when the Bulldogs (and Richt, too) messed up every which way in blowing the Outback Bowl to Michigan State, the tee-hees became hardy-har-hars. A team that had gone 0-4 against ranked opponents would go on to achieve “the greatest success you can have in college football”? Dream on, brother.
Eleven months later, the dreamer awakes and smells a heady blend of coffee. If the Bulldogs beat Georgia Tech on Saturday, they will stand on the cusp of the BCS title game. Granted, they’ll face a massive impediment in Alabama (presuming it beats Auburn, which it will), but still: For the first time since Richt took up residence in Athens, his team has a clear path to the national championship. Which only lends greater resonance to the second half of that January pronouncement: “If you knock long enough, you’ll eventually break through.”
In 2002, when the Bulldogs went 13-1 and took the school’s first SEC title in two decades in Year 2 under Richt, a BCS title seemed this reborn program’s manifest destiny. But LSU beat Georgia twice in 2003, and Tennessee upset the Bulldogs in Athens the next year, and Georgia’s 2005 SEC champs had two losses in a year when being undefeated wouldn’t have been enough, what with USC and Texas, the preseason Nos. 1 and 2, staying unbeaten until they met in the Rose Bowl.
Manifest destiny hadn’t yet manifested itself, and after a decade on the job it wasn’t clear that Richt would take a team beyond an SEC championship. Which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but when five different SEC schools were taking BCS titles while Georgia was stuck on 1980, it was possible to ask if Richt’s moment had passed without ever arriving.
Twice his teams had come close. The once-beaten 2002 Bulldogs finished third in the BCS standings, behind unbeatens Miami and Ohio State. In 2007 Georgia stood fourth in the penultimate BCS rankings and saw No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia lose … but somehow the Bulldogs dropped to fifth. The voters’ apparent rationale: A team that didn’t win its conference shouldn’t be allowed to play for the national title. (Not that it stopped Alabama last season.)
The 2008 Bulldogs of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green were ranked No. 1 in preseason but got little right. A slew of summer arrests left Georgia reeling before the team held its first practice, and the bubble burst on an awful night in Sanford Stadium that saw Alabama lead 31-0 at the half. That team would lose only three games, but they were epic failures: The drubbing by Alabama, the 49-10 flop against national-champ-to-be Florida and Richt’s only loss to Georgia Tech, a 45-42 game the Bulldogs led 28-12 at halftime.
The next two years were a clear retreat. Georgia went 8-5 , then 6-7. The program that once could beat anyone anywhere closed 2010 by losing to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl on a day the Bulldogs couldn’t manage a touchdown. The 2011 season began with losses to Boise State and South Carolina, and there was no guarantee Richt would be coaching this team in 2012. But Georgia started winning and, benefiting from a soft schedule, claimed the SEC East. Then it lost emphatically to LSU and egregiously to Michigan State, and it was hard to know what to think. Were the Bulldogs back? Or had they just gotten lucky?
Even this season, there were times we wondered. The 35-7 loss at South Carolina was one of the worst performances by any Richt team, and the halting victory at Kentucky wasn’t much better. But then Georgia went to Jacksonville and upset its nemesis, and everything changed. For the first time since 2007, this coach and this program had won a game against an opponent of consequence, and today the Bulldogs are 10-1, ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings with a date against No. 2 surely upcoming.
Twelve years on the job, Richt finally has Georgia in position to play for a national championship. All it has to do is win these next two games. Asked Wednesday on the SEC conference call how it felt not to need any outside assistance, Richt ducked the question: “I’m not going to make a comment on it. I’m focused on trying to beat Georgia Tech.”
It’s possible Georgia could lose to Tech, and the Bulldogs will be an underdog against Alabama. But even if this season doesn’t end with the Bulldogs hoisting the crystal trophy, the dreamer has already been proved a prophet. His team is indeed knocking on a door that has been closed to Georgia for three decades. His team is three games from glory.
By Mark Bradley